Programmers improve weather forecasting for troops fighting war on terror

  • Published
  • By G. A. Volb
  • HQ AFWA Public Affairs
The products - detailed weather forecasts supporting our war fighters - are important, but the coding providing it via high-tech imagery to the world was cumbersome at best until recently.

The program driving the imagery was so large, that in less than seven months Senior Airman Ben Smeland took the 77,000-plus lines of code comprising GrADS, or Gridded Analysis and Display System, and slashed it to a little more than 8,000 - about 10 percent of its original size. The official implementation of the new, more efficient software went online July 19.

The software Smeland and his co-author (Senior Airman Russell Pyle) wrote produces routine regional products, as well as provides data used in generating more specific visual forecasts used by troops down range. "Using a new program structure, we not only reduced training time for new maintainers, but cut maintenance times drastically due to its intuitive design," said Smeland, a software applications technician with the Air Force Weather Agency's 2nd System Operations Squadron here.

For Smeland the change included designing, proposing changes to leadership and writing most of the revised code. "The code itself wasn't especially difficult," the 26-year-old Airman from Chicora, Pa., said, "but ensuring the system met our standards and personal maintenance requirements was a time-consuming task."

Senior Airman Russell Pyle, a Sacramento, Calif., native, worked closely with Smeland to identify limitations of the previous version, rewrite code and debug the system - making sure the end product remained the same on the user's end.

That meant delivering the goods, from a forecasting standpoint, to those serving in remote parts of the world, where austere conditions can damage multi-million dollar aircraft, limit operations in the war on terror or prevent them from ever getting off the ground. "The new version of GrADS ensures troops get a more reliable weather product faster," said Pyle, also 26.

Customers on the back end, such as forward operating base camps used by the Army, Navy and Air Force aviators, plus major commands in Europe, Asia and the Middle East (many involved with Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom) now have access to detailed, area-specific updates in 25 minutes. This same process previously took up to five-plus hours -- the time savings a major advantage for troops using weather products in planning military operations.

"In the past, when a new regional product was required, a small alteration to the coding was needed - sometimes no more than a few characters," said Smeland, a graduate of Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology - offering the nation's top-ranked undergrad program in computer science. "But in order to adhere to software policies, it meant extensive testing as well as a complete implementation process. Most of the changes we've made allow us to make such modifications much easier from a maintenance standpoint, turning them around far quicker."

From a warfighter's standpoint, the switch was seamless, minus the ability to get forecasting products much faster. Now, the quick delivery of products directly influences real-world mission planning.

"Before I discovered these models, I'd spend more than three hours agonizing over a fleet of NCEP (National Centers for Environmental Prediction) charts to help build the next two week's Joint Air Operations Plan," said Maj. Mark Coggins, chief of the Combined Air and Space Operations Center weather specialty team at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia. "Now I spend just over 30 minutes in preparation, and have noticed an increase in model consistency ... perhaps due to how the data is packaged."